Pay a visit to Menlo Park's Guild Theatre and it's easy to see why people are worried about its future. The paint is chipped, the marquee letters are faded and showtime crowds are rare.
But the founders of a new nonprofit propose to transfigure the has-been theater on El Camino Real in Menlo Park into a state-of-the-art entertainment venue. They plan to announce their new organization and its mission at the Menlo Park City Council goal-setting meeting Jan. 29.
According to one of the founders, Drew Dunlevie of Menlo Park, the organization, called the Peninsula Arts Guild, was founded with the goal of establishing and programming a community-driven events venue that can draw top-tier acts to the Peninsula.
He is joined in his effort by two colleagues, Pete Briger and Thomas Layton – "very successful people by Silicon Valley standards" who are also "very philanthropic," Mr. Dunlevie said.
"Fewer people go to the movies, full stop," he said. "Single-screen art house theaters have been hit the hardest."
"Our goal is to construct or refurbish a top-flight, world-class, kick-ass multifaceted entertainment venue on the Peninsula."
The venue could be used for events such as school plays, jazz shows, comedians, author talks, band or singer shows, speaker series, and movies, he said. "The venue will have a definite 'by the community, for the community' approach."
He said the organization has cut an option agreement with the Guild Theatre's owner, Howard "Sandy" Crittenden of Atherton. "We have the right to buy the theater, should we want to," he said.
But the project is not a done deal, he noted. The nonprofit is committed to getting a venue on the Peninsula and has chosen the Guild Theatre as its preferred location. If things don't work out in Menlo Park, though, the group is determined to bring the plan to fruition elsewhere on the Peninsula.
"We're not developers," he said. "We don't have years and billions to spend to think about this."
The project is likely to require Menlo Park city staff prioritization to get it through the entitlement process. From there, Mr. Dunlevie said, the construction work would likely take a year and a half to two years to complete.
One likely challenge the project would face is the Guild Theater's lack of a designated parking lot; any change in use would likely trigger the requirement to add parking.
Mr. Dunlevie expects the project to cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million in capital costs, depending on the level of refurbishing or rebuilding required, which would be covered by the nonprofit.
The venue would be open to the community to schedule events, and he and his colleagues plan to book the site with "top-flight" talent – for example, acts that come to Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheater or San Francisco's Fillmore for big shows, or more regularly venues like Slim's or the Great American Music Hall, he said.
"We think we can punch above our weight class on venue size," he said, adding that he hopes the quality of the new venue will draw top performers, and "get those guys paid what they need."
But the venue could also be available to book for community events such as, for example, an Oak Knoll school play or a garage band night, depending on what people want. Mr. Dunlevie said the plan has also been met with enthusiasm by Kepler's, which could host author events at the site.
Retaining the ability to show movies will be a priority at the venue, he said, but added that he wasn't sure the theater would be able to continue to offer first-run movies.
Judy Adams, a Menlo Park resident who in September 2016 launched a petition aimed at restoring the movie theater to its former glory, garnering about 4,000 hard-copy and online signatures, said in an email that "our petition's goals, and Drew's nonprofit, it seems to me, can be mutually beneficial and possible."
She said that she'd like to see the theater continue to offer first-run movies, and that films be offered as a key part of the theater's future.
"I realize that change is necessary, but I'm also for preservation of the key element of the Guild's history. It has survived from its burlesque roots, silent films, talkies, and is struggling to continue to contribute to the community in the age of home theaters, streaming video and multiplex cinemas as are other historic - modest - moviehouses throughout the country," she said.
She's put out requests for petitioners to voice their support for the space's continued operation as a theater, and several people have already emailed the City Council expressing those wishes.
According to Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller, having a mix of entertainment options in downtown Menlo Park is "a vital component of quality of life that residents want."
"I think it's going to be a ton of fun," he said. "I couldn't be more excited about it."
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said the project could be exciting. She expressed concern that the city already has a fairly lengthy work plan and limited staff, but noted the venue "would be great for businesses and restaurants as it will bring more customers downtown, especially in the evening."
The Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to meet from 1 to 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29, for its annual goal-setting session in the Oak Room of the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center. Access the agenda here.